Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be

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Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
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One is hard-pressed to find a more polarizing and misunderstood word than “sin.” A slightest insinuation that something is a “sin” provokes angry accusations of intolerant moralism.

This indignance is indicative of the moral subjectivism among today’s regnant intellectuals. What is remarkable, however, is that “people who take a casual attitude toward, say, pornography, tax evasion, or mockery of religion can at the same time show a fierce (even legalist) opposition to sexism, racism, self-righteousness, and air pollution” (103).

But how can an attitude that seems “right” to one person (e.g. a racist or sexist) be called “wrong” by another person in the absence of objective moral standards? Even the most avant garde subjectivists draw the line somewhere.

Defining “sin”
In short, we are profoundly confused about “sin,” and this is what Cornelius Plantinga Jr. sets out to correct with his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. As the subtitle of the book indicates, this is “a breviary,” or a brief summary, of “sin,” but it would be a mistake to think that this relative brevity (202 pages) implies a shallow treatment.

Plantinga begins by defining sin as “any act [or disposition]–any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed–or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame” (13). Yet divine displeasure is not arbitrary, for God hates sin because it violates shalom, which refers to “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight,” or simply, “the way things ought to be” (10).

What sin is not…
This definition, of course, is offhandedly dismissed by a culture that does not recognize vertical accountability to God. In such a culture, morality is merely a function of horizontal accountability to fellow humans.

Thus, immorality merely designates a breech of conventional behaviors, attitudes, rights, and obligations concerning other persons. Each ethical and legal system determines for itself who decides right and wrong and what is the law that ought to be obeyed.

For this reason, Plantinga distinguishes sin from immorality, which is culturally relative. Similarly, he distinguishes sin from crime, since crime is statute-relative while sin is not. Many sins, including unbelief, pride, and sloth, are perfectly legal.

There is, nevertheless, a subjective dimension to sin, but it is subjective with regard to one’s faith, not with regard to one’s environment. Even an objectively innocent act can be subjectively sinful if the agent thinks that it is objectively sinful and does it anyway, for that is a willful violation of the perceived will of God. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

Scottish minister Oswald Chambers once said that “the holiest person is … one who is most conscious of what sin is.” In Chapters 2-10, Plantinga canvasses the Biblical and historical Christian witness to describe sin in its various complexions as disorder, contagion, parasite, masquerade, folly, addiction, attack, and flight:

Sin as Disorder (Ch 2)
In the beginning, the universe is a “formless void” (Gen. 1:2), but at creation, God forms and fills. In the first three days, he forms kingdoms, separating light from darkness, sea from sky, and water from land, respectively.

Then, in the latter three days, he fills these kingdoms with kings, creating the sun, moon, and stars, the fish and birds, and the land creatures, respectively. At the end of the six days, as the crown jewel of his creation, God creates man and woman as perfect complements, together to rule over all creation under God’s sovereign lordship.

In light of God’s creative ordering of the universe, sin is an act of uncreation that subverts this divine order and transgresses boundaries. So in the Fall, man infringes upon God’s authority, woman upon man’s, and the serpent upon the woman’s (Gen. 3).

Consequently, the Fall culminates in the Flood, where the creational distinctions are blurred as sky falls upon sea and the waters cover the earth (Gen. 7) (30). If sin is a violation of God’s creational design, holiness, then, “is the wholeness of resources, motive, purpose, and character typical of someone who fits snugly into God’s broad design for shalom” (34).

Sin as Contagion (Ch 3-4)
Leviticus 19 describes both ceremonial uncleanness and moral decay as instances of contamination. Sin is a contagion, a pollutant, that defiles that which is pure. It contaminates a marriage by introducing a third lover. It contaminates worship by introducing an idol (45-46). A “pure” heart, then, is an unadulterated, undivided one (Ps. 24:4).

As a contagion, sin spreads “like the drought that prompts a maple tree to announce its distress by producing hundreds of emergency seed pods, or like a man with AIDS who infects and impregnates a woman, so sin tends both to kill and to reproduce” (54). Parental dysfunction, racism, as well as drug addiction are often passed on from generation to generation.

So, then, sin begets sin. It has a corporate, intergenerational dimension. This fact, however, does not exclude human culpability. The context of sin must not be confused with its cause (64). While “involuntariness may mitigate… it doesn’t necessarily excuse” (22).

An environmental determinism is untenable because it can never conclusively rule out human agency. To not hold people responsible for their sins is to dehumanize them, because those whom we regard as helpless, whether due to immaturity, insanity, addiction, etc., we do not treat as fully human (67).

Sin as Parasite (Ch 5)
Sin also functions more specifically as a parasite, which drains vitality from its host. Like a virus, sin subverts good gifts toward evil ends. So “the same gift that enables a scientist to conquer a disease also enables her to manufacture one and to sell it to terrorists. Using the same thoughtful expressions of praise and caring, a man may inspire a woman he wants to marry or seduce one he wants to conquer” (77).

As C.S. Lewis says, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (Mere Christianity, p. 49). Sin is attractive only insofar as it imitates good. “Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. … Good is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive” (89).

For example, anger comes in two forms: 1) “righteous indignation, a virtue of the just” or 2) “smoldering resentment of competitors, the vice of the envious.” Likewise, pride comes in two forms: 1) “proper satisfaction in the achievement of excellence, the virtue of the diligent” or 2) “inordinate self-congratulation, the vice of the pompous” (81).

Some counter that our lives would be drab without sin. Ian Fleming, for one, argues that “the depiction of… sins and their consequences [has] been the yeast in most great fiction and drama” (“Introduction,” The Seven Deadly Sins, p. x), but this is only half true. As Plantinga notes:

Daring thieves, dashing rogues, renegade police detectives, disobedient angels, charming psychopaths–these figures attract us because they are bold, urbane, witty, energetic, or imaginative. … Their sin interests us because it leeches the color, wit, and energy out of normal life and presents these things to us in a novel, risky, and therefore dramatic form (94).

Sin as Masquerade (Ch 6)
Similarly, vice also frequently masquerades as virtue–intemperance as liberty, subversion of relational order as equality, “lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern” (98). Even Satan must masquerade “as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13) for credibility.

“Self-deception, like a skillful computer fraud, doubles back to cover its own trail” (107). As Lewis Smedes observes, “First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves” (A Pretty Good Person, p. 74). This is the nature of sin.

Sin as Folly (Ch 7)
Sin is not only wrong, it is also foolish, because it is ultimately futile. The Bible often refers to sin as folly, contrasted with the wisdom of staying within God’s order (Prov. 9). Sin involves missing the mark and straying from the path that God intends for us.

It is fascinating, then, that even “people who prefer not to judge or confess sin nonetheless concede that some objectionable act was stupid, tragic, shortsighted, mistaken, unfortunate, miscalculated, erring, regrettable, or out of line” (114) They recognize that something was amiss.

For example, public figures embroiled in a scandal often confess to a “lapse in judgment” or “inappropriate behavior.” As Plantinga observes, this is a cowardly and ridiculous euphemism, but it is nonetheless an important admission. Though they might not concede that they are sinners, they are in effect conceding that they have been fools (114).

Sin as Addiction (Ch 8)
Sin also functions like an addiction on many levels. Its desire is to master us (Gen. 4:7), so it tends to become progressively obsessive (can’t stop thinking about it), impulsive (do it without thinking), and compulsive (can’t help but do it). It refuses to be contained, works itself into the habits of the hearts, and burrows itself under self-deception (147).

Sin as Attack and Flight (Ch 9-10)
Finally, sin takes the form of an attack against God and a flight from God. As Henry Stob argues, hell is depicted in the Scripture as either very hot or very cold. As Jesus taught, it is “the outer darkness” (Mt. 25:30) and “the eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41). That is because:

Hell is made by those who climb the holy mountain and try to unseat the Holy One who, ablaze with glory, dwells in the light unapproachable. Those who mount an attack on God and cross the barrier of this exclusive divinity die like moths in the flame of him who will not and cannot be displaced. And hell is made by those who, turning their backs on God, flee the light and move toward the eternal blackness that marks God’s absence. Hell, then, is unarrested sin’s natural and programmatic end. Sin is either rebellion or flight, and, when persisted in, leads either to the fiery furnace or to the cold and desolate night. (Henry Stob, “Sin, Salvation, Service,” p. 16)

Plantinga’s account of the various ways in which people flee from God is particularly illuminating. We do so by conforming to, conniving with, and condoning evil, and by compartmentalizing our lives and cocooning into our little worlds where we are oblivious to the needs of our neighbors (182-189).

For this reason, perhaps the most dangerous kind of sin is not the grave offense that alarms all, but the seeming trifle that escapes our detection. As C.S. Lewis wisely notes, “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 56).

To illustrate, the premium value we place on entertainment in the U.S. suggests that “it has become a diversion not only in the sense of a playful relief from the main business of life but also in the sense of a distraction from it, an evasion of it, a sometimes grim, big-business alternative to it” (190).

Human Sin and Divine Grace (Epilogue)
Thankfully, sin is not the end of the story. As Plantinga writes, “Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way” (199).

To speak of sin without grace is incomplete, but to speak of grace without sin is imprudent, for to do so is “to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ…[and] cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it” (199).

This is the express purpose of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: to remind the church that “to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting” (199).

By leveraging his perceptive insight into culture, Plantinga delivers a compelling exposé of sin. The fluidity of his writing belies the compelling force of his words. His description of the cogency, simplicity, and beauty of divine shalom and the chicanery, vapidity, and depravity of sin inspires deep wonder for God and compassion for the world.

In my estimation, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is the most penetrating foray into the doctrine of sin since C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. 

Buy Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be HERE.

Building a Discipling Culture


Breen, Mike, and Steve Cockram. Building a Discipling Culture2nd ed.  Pawleys Island: 3 Dimension Ministries, 2011.
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Mike Breen and Steve Cockram’s passion to see discipleship come to the forefront of church ministry is evident from the very beginning of Building a Discipling Culture. They allege that many churches have their priorities reversed, focusing on building churches while neglecting to make disciples. They propose an alternative model that Jesus Himself espoused, claiming that “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (Kindle Location 100). They later elaborate, “If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee you will make disciples. It is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide” (KL 109).

So what is the difference between building a church and discipling people? Breen and Cockram argue that three things are necessary for building a discipling culture: 1) a discipling vehicle, 2) discipling relationships, and 3) a discipling language (KL 537).

A DISCIPLING VEHICLE
A discipling vehicle is essentially a small group of four to ten people that you meet with regularly to disciple (at least every other week) (KL 546). Breen and Cockram call this group a “huddle,” and a huddle, diverges from traditional small groups in that it does not grow by adding new members, but by equipping and encouraging members to start their own huddles (KL 551). The reason for this is that, by definition, every disciple makes disciples (Mt. 28:18-20).

DISCIPLING RELATIONSHIPS
A huddle by itself, however, is inadequate for making disciples, because “the best discipling relationships always have an intentional, ‘organized’ component to them, as well as a less formal, ‘organic’ component” (KL 546). Covenantal relationships constitute the “organic” component whereby disciples have access to the discipler’s personal life. Breen and Cockram describe this dynamic in the discipleship triangle of “Information-Imitation-Innovation.”

Many churches convey “information” (classroom) very well. However, they often lack discipling relationships that facilitate “imitation” (apprenticeship and immersion), which in turn fosters “innovation” (KL 598). It would be a mistake, however, to equate discipling relationships with friendships. Friendship only requires invitation, but discipleship also entails challenge. Discipleship calls people to a greater conformity to Christ’s character and to a higher level of Christ-like competency. Breen and Cockram’s “Invitation and Challenge Quadrant” demonstrates that an ideal discipling relationship involves both high invitation and high challenge:

This kind of discipling relationship need not be inordinately burdensome. It can be as simple as inviting someone who is struggling spiritually to accompany you to the grocery store so that you can talk with him or her on the way and back (KL 580). It means inviting people to our quotidian comings and goings. This assumes, of course, that we first have a life worth imitating (KL 576), but we need not despair, because while we will never be perfect examples, we can be living examples (KL 624).

A DISCIPLING LANGUAGE
Up to this point, there is nothing radically insightful in Building a Discipling Culture that sets it apart from other books on discipleship. Almost 50 years prior, Robert Coleman delineated a similar process of discipleship in his classic The Master Plan of Evangelism, namely the Selection, Association, Consecration, Impartation, Demonstration, Delegation, Supervision, and Reproduction of disciples. Furthermore, modern books such as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s Trellis and the Vine (2009) also decry churches’ shortsighted tendency to rely on vocational ministers and volunteers to build churches through programs and events (the trellis), rather than training the whole church to make disciples (the vine).

What sets Building a Discipling Culture apart from the other books on discipleship is its discipling language. Breen and Cockram explain that “language creates culture,” and that in order to create a discipling culture, we need a language to support it (KL 632). The discipling language that Breen and Cockram, and their ministry 3DM, use is called LifeShapes. The LifeShapes are 8 diagrams that seek to capture the essence of discipleship. Breen and Cockram note that Jesus chose parables as his preferred teaching method in an oral culture, and argue that we live in a visual culture that calls for an image-based pedagogy (KL 687-692). Since most of the book is dedicated to describing these LifeShapes, I will summarize and evaluate each of them below (I have edited some of the LifeShapes to supply missing details and enhance clarity):

1. Continuous Breakthrough: “The Kairos Learning Circle”

Kairos is a Greek word that denotes punctual, opportune, time, as opposed to chronos, which denotes linear, chronological time. According to Breen and Cockram, every Christian encounters kairos moments “when the eternal God breaks into your circumstances with an event that gathers some loose ends of our life and knots them together in his hands” (KL 772). This event can be “positive (a promotion at work) or negative (getting laid off from your job). It can be big (your wedding) or small (a date night with your spouse)” (KL 815). The “Kairos Learning Circle” is a diagram that helps believers respond appropriately to their kairos moments. The straight line stands for the believer’s linear journey, at which point a kairos moment (X) takes place. At this point, the believer needs to enter the learning circle, which consists of observing, reflecting, and discussing the kairos event in order to plan, account, and act (KL 834). This is the same process as repentance and belief (Mk. 1:15). This first LifeShape is a useful tool for promoting attentiveness and responsiveness to divine encounters in people’s everyday lives.

2. Deeper Relationships: “The Triangle of Following Jesus”

The “Triangle” seeks to illustrate the holistic life of discipleship that entails “Up, In, and Out” relationships. Breen and Cockram use Mic. 6:8 as the paradigm: “Act justly” (Out), “Love mercy” (In), and “Walk humbly with your God” (Up) (KL 1080). They challenge Christians simultaneously to leave their comfort zones to seek out the lost (Out) and establish communities characterized by intimacy and accountability (In), both, without compromising a deep, personal relationship with God (Up).

3. Rhythm of Life: “The Semicircle Pendulum of Rest and Work”

Breen and Cockram lament that “We have become human ‘doings’ rather than human ‘beings’” (KL 1300), and argue that we need a Biblical framework for rest and work. To this end, the “Semicircle Pendulum” describes seasons of fruitfulness followed by seasons of abiding (KL 1399). Breen and Cockram write that bearing fruit is supposed to be natural, just as vines don’t strain to push out grapes. The reason why we strain to produce fruit, they argue, is because we do not have proper seasons of abiding wherein we cease activity and rest (KL 1414). Specifically, Breen and Cockram advocate breaking the day down into “eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, four hours engaging, and four hours disengaging” (KL 1468). They also highlight the need for extended times of retreat for resting in the presence of God (Mk. 1:12-13) (KL 1487), as well as daily times of quiet resting (Mk. 1:35-39) (KL 1496).

4. Multiplying Life: “The Square of Discipleship Multiplication”

Drawing from his discipling experience, Breen and Cockram observe four levels of disciples (D1, D2, D3, D4) and the appropriate leadership style for each (L1, L2, L3, L4) (KL 1547). The confidence/enthusiasm of the disciples is inversely proportionate to the leader’s consensus/explanation, and the competence/experience of the disciples is inversely proportionate to the leader’s direction/example.

D1=high confidence/enthusiasm, low competence/experience (Mk. 1:15-20).
L1=high direction/example, low consensus/explanation
“I do, you watch”
This is the first stage of discipleship where the disciples are excited about the new idea and purpose in their lives but have little competence (KL 1564-1572).

D2=low confidence/enthusiasm, low competence/experience (Lk. 12:32-34)
L2=high direction/example, high consensus/explanation
“I do, you help”
This is when the excitement begins to die down and discouragement creeps in (KL 1622-1639). Breen and Cockram add that D2 is the most important stage of development for disciples. The leaders need to be highly accessible at this point and emphasize the grace of God.

D3=low confidence/enthusiasm, high competence/experience (Jn. 15:12-17)
L3=low direction/example, high consensus/explanation
“You do, I help”
The leaders need to highlight the sovereignty of God at this point (KL 1691).

D4=high confidence/enthusiasm, high competence/experience (Mt. 28:18-20)
L4=low direction/example, low consensus/explanation
“You do, I watch”
By this stage, the disciples’ confidence and enthusiasm are no longer a fledgling bud, but a full-bloom flower rooted in the gospel. This is when the disciples are released to go and do likewise (KL 1736).

The leadership styles presented by Breen and Cockram mirror the three leadership styles first noted by psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1939: Authoritarian (Autocratic), Participative (Democratic), and Delegative (Laissez-Faire). The Scriptural references adduced in the book are only tangentially, if at all, related to these various leadership styles, and thus this LifeShape seems to be derived more from general revelation than from special revelation.

5. Personal Calling: “The Fivefold Ministries Pentagon”

The “Pentagon” is a visual mnemonic for remembering the fivefold ministries specified in Eph. 4:7, 11-13 (KL 1820). Breen and Cockram assert that every Christian is equipped to serve as at least one of the following:

Apostles – Visionary individuals who are always pioneering into new territory, initiating new churches, ministries, etc. (KL 1843)
Prophets – Perceptive individuals with the ability to foretell and forth-tell God’s revelation in specific circumstances (KL 1853).
Evangelists – Personable individuals who enjoy spending time with and sharing the gospel with non-Christians (KL 1872).
Pastors – Empathetic individuals who care for, comfort, and encourage God’s people (KL 1890).
Teachers – Analytical individuals who delight in explaining and applying the Scriptures for others (KL 1903).

Breen and Cockram teach that every Christian has a “base,” or primary, ministry, but may still be called to engage in “phase,” or secondary, ministries for certain periods (KL 1920). They note that prophets, pastors, and teachers have a natural preference for stability and tend to be introverted (KL 1990), while apostles and evangelists have a predilection for flexibility and tend to be extroverted (KL 2016). This diagram is helpful, but it can be misleading because it conflates spiritual offices with spiritual gifts. First, the Apostles were those commissioned by Jesus Christ Himself to establish churches where they previously did not exist (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:2; 15:8). There may be people with apostolic gifts, but they are not Apostles. Second, while any Christian with the gift of prophecy can occasionally prophesy (1 Cor. 14:31), there are those who are officially designated as Prophets in local churches (Acts 13:1; 15:31; 21:9; 1 Cor. 14:32). Third, while all Christians are called to evangelize (Matthew 28:18-20), there are Evangelists (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5) who are to devote themselves entirely to the task of doing, and equipping others for, evangelism. Similarly, every Christian is called to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), but the Teaching Pastors (this designation is to be preferred since, in Eph. 4, the “Pastor” and “Teacher” are combined under a single definite article) were officially recognized as such and compensated for their work (Acts 13:1; Gal. 6:6; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17). Therefore, not every Christian is called to fulfill one of the five ministerial offices. Rather, the emphasis in Eph. 4:11-12 is that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” themselves as gifts to the Church so that they might “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” The spiritual gifts are distributed to each Christian (Eph. 4:7; 1 Cor. 12), but spiritual offices are given only to some for the purpose of equipping all for ministry.

6. Definitive Prayer: “The Hexagon of Lord’s Prayer”

The “Hexagon” is a way to teach the Lord’s Prayer as a model for our prayers (Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-15). It is based on the Father’s Character, and pleads for the Father’s Kingdom, Provision, Forgiveness, Guidance, and Protection (KL 2142). This LifeShape is instructive, although the Father’s Guidance and Protection really belong in the same category: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).

7. Spiritual Health: “The Heptagon: Seven Signs of Life”


Breen and Cockram suggest that the seven signs of living organisms, namely Respiration (Prayer), Sensitivity (Fivefold Ministries), Growth, Reproduction, Excretion (Repentance), Nutrition (Obedience), and Movement (Delegation/Distribution of Authority), ought to characterize a living Church (1 Peter 2:4-5). They argue that these are “a useful diagnostic tool for assessing the spiritual health of those you disciple and the ministries they lead” (KL 2219). The connection between the signs of living organisms and the signs of a living church appears promising at first, but the strained analogy disappoints. For example, the word “respiration” does not naturally suggest “prayer,” nor “nutrition” “obedience.” Here, the LifeShape begins to feel less like a mnemonic and more like a gimmick. Instead of serving as a visual aid, the “Heptagon” is a visual distraction.The 9 Marks of a Healthy Church is a superior model for assessing the vitality of a church.

8. Relational Mission: “The Octagon: Finding the Person of Peace”

The final LifeShape, the “Octagon,” is a way to teach evangelism based on the “Person of Peace” principle found in Luke 10 (KL 2424). Breen and Cockram posit that God has already prepared Persons of Peace who are receptive to the gospel, and that our job in evangelism is to identify these Persons of Peace rather than belaboring the issue with those whom God has not called (KL 2431-2499). There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping.

The eight principles for unlocking, or discovering, the Persons of Peace are:

  1. Presence: We are to model the Presence of Jesus in people’s lives by showing kindness and speaking encouragement (KL 2524).
  2. Passing Relationships: For people we come across only once or twice in our lives, our objective is to plant seeds in hopes that others will water and that God will give the harvest in the future (1 Corinthians 3:6) (KL 2533).
  3. Permanent Relationships: Evangelizing our friends and family may take a long time. It is important at this point to watch, wait, and pray, rather than trying to force the issue prematurely (KL 2540).
  4. Proclamation: In proclamation, we invite a person to faith in Christ. This is one way to identify Persons of Peace (KL 2549).
  5. Preparation: Breen and Cockram utilize the Engel Scale as an example to show that there are various stages of preparation for non-believers. Some are closer to faith than others.
  6. Power: This is a method which uses “awe as evangelism,” through miraculous healings and such (KL 2569).
  7. Perception: This is what Peter Wagner calls “testing the soil,” and calls for spiritual discernment regarding individuals and situations in evangelism (KL 2576).

This LifeShape is also less than helpful because it confuses several categorical axes. First, there is the context of evangelism (passing and permanent relationships), then there is the method of evangelism (presence, proclamation, and power), and finally there’s the measure of evangelism (preparation and perception). Lumping them all into the same diagram with unclear, even if alliterative, headings muddles the Person of Peace principle. Moreover, there’s only seven sides to this Octagon…

Notwithstanding my fuss over minutiae, Building a Discipling Culture is an excellent practical resource if you want to learn about discipleship. Breen and Cockram have a knack for presenting nuggets of insight with memorable alliterations and catchy phrases. Consequently, the discipling model proposed in their book is extraordinarily simple and reproducible. It has, and will continue to, serve the Church well. However, if you are looking for a theologically-nuanced and comprehensive book on discipleship, this is not one. For example, it does not include ways to teach Scripture study or theology, and omits other essential spiritual disciplines such as fasting and silence. It also tends to assume that the gospel is central to discipleship, rather than accentuating its importance. Discipleship that is not properly grounded in the gospel can degenerate into pragmatic legalism. One would be wise also to consult Jonathan Dodson’s Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

Buy Building a Discipling Culture HERE.

The Best Children’s Bibles

In the process of identifying the best Bible for teaching the children at my church, I looked through 20 different children’s Bibles (CB). I first determined the appropriate age group of the Bibles, then pinned them on the scale of dynamic (sense for sense) or formal (word for word) equivalence:

D2 (Most dynamically equivalent, a rather “free” translation with creative license)
D1 (More dynamically equivalent)
N (Neutral, somewhat dynamic and somewhat formal)
F1 (More formally equivalent)
F2 (Most formally equivalent, a rather “rigid” translation with little variance from the original text)

Then, I used the following criteria to judge the usefulness of the Bibles:

Scriptural Fidelity: Does the CB accurately convey the message of the original text of Scripture without adding extraneous details or subtracting essential details?

Theology: Does the CB feature orthodox and appropriate theological interpretation that highlight the main idea and purpose of the text? Does it look ahead to Jesus Christ who fulfills the whole Scripture (Matthew 5:17-20)?

Comprehensiveness: Does the CB include most of the stories from the original text of Scripture?

Storytelling: Is the narrative flow of the CB fluent, clear, engaging, and inspiring?

Illustration: Are the accompanying illustrations in the CB colorful, beautiful, imaginative, intelligible, and faithful to the cultural context and the original text of Scripture?

Interactiveness: Does the CB involve the reader in dialogue? Does it include questions, summaries, and other interactive features that facilitate understanding and encourage personal response?

I scored them on a five point scale (1-Very Bad; 2-Bad; 3-Okay; 4-Good; 5-Very Good) and then calculated their averages. They are listed below from best to worst for Preschool, Kindergarten, and Primary/Elementary levels, respectively.

______________________________________________________________
PRESCHOOL LEVEL

The Big Picture Story Bible
Edited by David Helm and Illustrated by Gail Schoonmaker
Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 2004 ($21.20)

Preschool; D2
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 5 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 2 of 5 (26 stories)
Storytelling: 5 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 3 of 5
Total Score: 4.0

Comment: This is the best CB for the Preschool age group, and it’s the only one that comments on the protoevangelion, or the first proclamation of the gospel, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This, of course, predicts Jesus’s atonement and ultimate victory over Satan. The Big Picture Story Bible traces the redemptive narrative of Christ through all of its stories. Unfortunately, it only has twenty-six stories.

100 Bible Stories 100 Bible Songs
Created by Stephen Elkins and Illustrated by Tim O’Connor
Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 2004 ($17.09)

Preschool; D1
Scriptural Fidelity: 4 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (100 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 5 of 5
Total: 3.8

Comment: 100 Bible Stories 100 Bible Songs includes 2 CDs that contain 100 songs that accompany each of the stories. They are memorable and fun. The stories themselves are interesting and fluid, and the illustrations are colorful and pleasant. It euphemizes certain aspects of the stories. For example, God says to Abraham, “take Isaac and give him back to me” (26), instead of telling him to sacrifice Isaac. At the end of each story, there’s a summary observation, an interpretive statement, and an application statement.

The New Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes
Edited by Kenneth N. Taylor and Illustrated by Annabel Spenceley
Moody Press, Chicago, 2002 ($13.67)

Preschool; D2
Scriptural Fidelity: 3 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (184 stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 3 of 5
Interactiveness: 5 of 5
Total: 3.7

Comment: The New Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes has little theological interpretation. The stories are minimalistic and sometimes missing crucial details. For example, why is God sending a flood? It is not explained. It only mentions that God tells Noah to build a boat in order to save him. The illustrations are colorful, but pretty pedestrian. In the story of the Fall, a raccoon is pictured instead of a snake for some unknown reason. Satan is not even mentioned. At the end of each story, there are 2-3 questions that summarize the narrative details. It also features a short prayer at the end of each story (e.g. “Lord, I want to be like Noah and do just what You tell me to do” (24).

A Child’s First Bible
Edited by Kenneth N. Taylor and illustrated by Nadine Wickenden and Diana Catchpole
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 2000 ($7.34)

Preschool; D2
Scriptural Fidelity: 3 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (125 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 3 of 5
Interactiveness: 4 of 5
Total: 3.3

Comment: The stories are very abbreviated and require a lot of supplementary explanation. For example, in the story of the Fall, it simply says that Adam and Eve did not obey God. It neither mentions the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil nor Satan. It does recapitulate every story at the end of each section, and encourages readers to respond to the content.

My First Bible in Pictures
Edited by Kenneth N. Taylor and Illustrated by Richard and Frances Hook
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 1989 ($8.99)

Prechool; D2
Scriptural Fidelity: 3 of 5
Theology: 2 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (125 stories)
Storytelling: 2 of 5
Illustration: 2 of 5
Interactiveness: 2 of 5
Total: 2.5

Comment: The brusque storytelling and minimalistic detail of My First Bible in Pictures make it liable to misunderstanding. It omits crucial details, such as, why God is sending a flood, and why God doesn’t want people to build the Tower of Babel. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden simply because they “did something God told them not to do,” which begs the question, “what exactly did God tell Adam and Eve not to do?” Also, the illustrations are boring and unimaginative. An overwhelming majority of them have a dreary, yellow hue. The Bible does include a question at the end of each story, but most of the time they simply miss the point, e.g. “What was Elijah’s horses made of?” Fiery horses are great but that’s really not the point of the story.

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KINDERGARTEN LEVEL

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name
Edited by Sally Lloyd-Jones and Illustrated by Jago
Zonderkidz, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007 ($10.50)

Kindergarten; D2
Scriptural Fidelity: 4 of 5
Theology: 5 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 3 of 5 (44 stories)
Storytelling: 5 of 5
Illustration: 5 of 5
Interactiveness: 3 of 5
Total: 4.2

Comment: The Jesus Storybook Bible takes the top prize for the Kindergarten age group. It should be noted, however, that it is a Storybook, which means that it does, on rare occasions, take creative license to enhance the storytelling. For example, when Jesus multiplies the loaves of bread and fish, he “wink[s] at the little boy and whisper[s] to his ear, ‘Watch!’” before performing the miracle (246). It has minor inaccuracies, such as Jacob having to work another seven years to marry Rachel (72), when, in reality, he gets to marry Rachel one week after marrying Leah, even though he is obligated to stay and work another seven years. I’m being nitpicky here because the book is so good overall. The illustrations are fun, colorful and imaginative. They are more cartoonish than realistic, but they are beautiful. The most important aspect of this CB is that it comments on how every story from the beginning to the end points to Jesus. It highlights the redemptive narrative and tells the story very well. At certain points, I was moved to tears by the compelling narrative. It has no additional features intended to facilitate reader engagement, but the narrative dialogues with the reader.

Adventure Bible Storybook
Edited by Catherine DeVries and Illustrated by Jim Madsen
Zonderkidz, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009 ($14.52)

Kindergarten; D2
Scriptural Fidelity: 3 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 3 of 5 (51 stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 5 of 5
Interactiveness: 5 of 5
Total: 3.8

Comment: The Adventure Bible Storybook adds extraneous details such as Noah’s wife accidentally bumping into Noah and saying “Oops, sorry” (19). It also subtly rationalizes certain miracles, for example, by randomly noting that “it probably took eight to twelve hours for the [Red Sea] to part” (57). On a better note, it does emphasize God’s love weaving the entire Biblical narrative together. The storytelling is engaging, and the illustrations are very detailed and realistic. At the end of each story, it follows its “Adventure” theme and includes an “Adventure Discovery,” which recaps the story, and “Words to Treasure,” which is a relevant memory verse.

Read and Learn Bible: Stories from the Old and New Testaments
Edited by Eva Moore and Illustrated by Duendes del Sur and Walter Carzon
Scholastic, Inc., New York, American Bible Society, 2011 ($10.79)

Kindergarten; F1
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (102 Stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 3 of 5
Total: 3.7

Comment: The Read and Learn Bible sticks pretty closely to the original text of Scripture with little additional theological interpretation. However, it has helpful study notes interspersed throughout the stories. For example, a study note explains that “The Hebrew word for Adam means ‘of the ground’ or ‘from the red earth’ and is also used as a general word for ‘humankind’ or ‘people'” (15). Other times, there are unhelpful implications, e.g. a study note asks the question, “How does Jesus heal today?” and answers: a) doctors and nurses b) hugs from parents and friends c) love and care from parents and grandparents, but does not suggest that Jesus heals miraculously today (5). The illustrations are colorful and beautiful, but most characters have staid expressions.

Read with Me Bible (NIrV Bible Storybook)
Edited by Doris Rikkers and Jean E. Syswerda and Illustrated by Dennis Jones
Zonderkidz, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000 ($13.48)

Kindergarten; F1
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (105 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 5 of 5
Interactiveness: 1 of 5
Total: 3.5

Comment: This is basically New International Reader’s Version with illustrations.

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My First Bible Storybook
Edited by Michael Berghof and Illustrated by Jacob Kramer
Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 2011 ($11.05)

Kindergarten; D1
Scriptural Fidelity: 4 of 5
Theology: 4 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (72 Stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 1 of 5
Total: 3.5

Comment: My First Bible Storybook is a very average CB. Nothing about it is very impressive, but nothing about it is bad either. The theology is solid, although it gets speculative at some points. For example, it describes God’s original creation as “perfect” and that all the animals got along. Though this is a widely-accepted inference, it is still speculative since Genesis does not mention it. It may be interpolating the Biblical concept of the New Heavens and the New Earth (Isa. 11:6) into the concept of the first Heavens and the Earth. Illustrations are engaging and expressive, but on rare occasions they don’t quite fit the text (e.g. when Adam names the “giraffe, rhinoceros, … [and] kangaroo,” an ostrich, chipmunk, rabbit, and fox are illustrated) (18).

The Beginner’s Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories
Edited by Karyn Henley and Illustrated by Dennas Davis
Zonderkidz, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1997 ($? discontinued)

Kindergarten; N
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (95 stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 1 of 5
Total: 3.5

Comment: The Beginner’s Bible (1997) has no features that facilitate reader response or interaction. However, it is faithful to the original text of Scripture. The storytelling and the illustrations are also solid.

beginner's bible

The Beginner’s Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories
Edited by Kelly Pulley
Zonderkidz, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005 ($10.50)

Kindergarten; N
Scriptural Fidelity: 4 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (94 stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 1 of 5
Total: 3.3

Comment: The Beginner’s Bible (2005) is a revision of The Beginner’s Bible (1997) above under the same title and an almost identical cover. However, it has a new author and the illustrations are different, though they have the same style. It has better chapter headings than the original, but the narrative is not as true to the sense of the original text of Scripture. For example, in the original, God says, “I am sorry that I made people. I will start all over again” (30), and then sends the flood. In the newer edition, God sends the flood because “[He] was sad that everyone but Noah forgot about him” (28). In the original, God destroys the Tower of Babel because he sees that men were “selfish and proud” (39), in the newer edition, God destroys the Tower of Babel because He did not like that people “act[ed] … as if they no longer needed him” (36). These shifts make God seem like a tyrant whose feelings are hurt rather than a holy God that demands obedience.

Eager Reader Bible: Bible Stories to Grow On
Edited by Daryl J. Lucas and Illustrated by Daniel J. Hochstatter
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 1994 ($12.81)

Kindergarten; D1
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (105 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 2 of 5
Interactiveness: 3 of 5
Total: 3.3

Comment: The Eager Reader Bible features average storytelling and average illustrations that are nothing out of the ordinary. Each story ends with a question about a narrative detail in the story, e.g. “What did Noah use to build the ark?” “Who came to Lot’s house?” “Who found baby Moses?” The interaction is good, but these questions do not capture the point of the story.

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PRIMARY/ELEMENTARY LEVEL

The Gospel Story Bible: Discovering Jesus in the Old and New Testaments
Edited by Marty Machowski and Illustrated by A.E. Macha
New Growth Press, Greensboro, NC, 2011 ($24.61)

Primary/Elementary School; D1
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 5 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (156 stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 3 of 5
Interactiveness: 5 of 5
Total: 4.3

Comment: The introduction to The Gospel Story Bible suggests that it is suitable for preschoolers. This is hardly true. The writing is too sophisticated, and its theological interpolations are too obscure for preschoolers. Even the illustrations, while beautiful and imaginative, are too abstract to be engaging for the younger children. With that said, this is the best of its kind for children in primary/elementary school. It is rich with theological analyses and every story points ahead to Jesus Christ. Each story concludes with a “Let’s Talk About It” section, which has three questions related to the story.

The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story
Edited by Doug Mauss and Illustrated by Sergio Cariello
David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO, 2010 ($10.99)

Primary/Elementary; D1
Scriptural Fidelity: 4 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 5 of 5 (214 Stories)
Storytelling: 4 of 5
Illustration: 5 of 5
Interactiveness: 3 of 5
Total: 4.0

Comment: The Action Bible is unique in its comic book like features and design, and it’s truly a boon to our highly visual culture (illustration-wise, it probably deserves a ‘6’ on a 5-point scale). The translation is solid, although it does editorialize a bit. For example, in the story where a group of youth jeer at Elisha and consequently get mauled by she-bears, Mauss and Cariello portray the youth as a “gang of young men” threatening to kill Elijah (405). This is clearly an attempt to “vindicate” God by making his punishment more palatable. However, the Bible does not hint at the murderous intent of the youth. Rather, the issue at hand is that “The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward” (Matthew 10:41). Since the prophet is God’s representative, mockery of God’s prophet is mockery of God Himself, so this story showcases God’s irreproachable holiness, not his despotic cruelty.
As for theological content, the Action Bible does not highlight the redemptive aspect of the Bible nearly as much as one might expect, given that it’s subtitled God’s Redemptive Story. It captures the moral of the stories well, but often misses the theological heart of the stories. For example, after nearly getting sacrificed by his father Abraham, Isaac concludes, “From my father I learned the cost of faith–and from God I learned the reward of faith” (63). It’s profound, but it fails to point out that Isaac’s experience foreshadows the work of the only begotten Son of God, who will climb up another mountain, carrying wood on his back, and actually be sacrificed, so that Isaac, you, or I would not have to pay for our sins.

The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories
Edited by Mary Batchelor and Illustrated by John Haysom
David C Cook, Colorado Springs, CO, 1995 ($17.09)

Primary/Elementary; D1
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 5 of 5 (365 stories)
Storytelling: 5 of 5
Illustration: 5 of 5
Interactiveness: 1 of 5
Total: 4.0

Comment: Overall, The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories is excellent, although it offers little theological interpretation. For example, it does not even mention that the story of the Prodigal Son reveals God’s love for us. It has highly detailed and realistic illustrations. Its scope is comprehensive. Unfortunately, however, it offers no interactive features.

The Golden Children’s Bible: The Old Testament and the New Testament
Edited by Rev. Joseph A. Grispino, Dr. Samuel Terrien, and Rabbi David H. Wice and Illustrated by Jose Miralles
A Golden Book, New York, 1993 ($11.55)

Primary/Elementary; F2
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 5 of 5 (373 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 2 of 5
Total: 3.7

Comment: To its credit, The Golden Children’s Bible is unique in that it was approved by an editorial board of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish scholars. However, it does not read very much like a children’s Bible. The storytelling is fairly prosaic. The illustrations are highly detailed and realistic. It also features maps and photographs that explicate the historical background of the stories. However, I am docking one point in illustration because of the jarring pictures of Jesus who has blonde hair and blue eyes. These Aryan features are obviously inaccurate and actually quite distracting since everybody else has brown hair and eyes (check pages 359 and 397).

The Children’s Bible: Illustrated Stories from the Old and New Testaments
Edited by Fiona Tulloch and Illustrated by Q2A Media
Arcturus Publishing Limited, London, UK ($ Varies)

Primary/Elementary; F1
Scriptural Fidelity: 3 of 5
Theology: 2 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (143 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 4 of 5
Interactiveness: 4 of 5
Total: 3.3

Comment: It does not seem that The Children’s Bible was vetted theologically. In the creation story, it says that “God had finished His creation and needed to rest” (11; italics added), as if he were tired. Furthermore, it resorts to careless, fairy-tale language when it says that Adam and Eve were “banished from the Garden of Eden forever” (13), that God expelled Cain to the “land of Nod to wander the earth forever” (15), and that Noah “served God faithfully every day of his long and happy life” (17). Humanity was not banned from the “Garden of Eden” forever, they can enter into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ. Also, Cain is not still wandering the earth today… In terms of interactive features, The Children’s Bible includes a study note on every other page or so, intended to help children understand the stories better. For example, one such note tells you that “A parable is a simple story that is used to teach people lessons” (130), and another helpful one tells you that “The name Christ comes from the Greek word ‘Christos,’ meaning anointed or chosen one. ‘Messiah’ means the same thing” (175).

The Illustrated Children’s Bible
Edited by Christopher Morris and Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
Harcourt Brace & Company, Orlando, FL, 1993 ($12.95)

Primary/Elementary; F2
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (141 stories)
Storytelling: 2 of 5
Illustration: 3 of 5
Interactiveness: 3 of 5
Total: 3.3

Comment: The Illustrated Children’s Bible is fairly comprehensive with 141 stories and dozens of maps and notes on the historical background. However, it’s a bit dense and prosaic. In fact, in many places, it simply extracts the passages directly from the King James Version and condenses them.

The Doubleday Illustrated Children’s Bible
Edited by Sandol Stoddard and Illustrated by Tony Chen
Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1983 ($6.95)

Primary/Elementary; F1
Scriptural Fidelity: 5 of 5
Theology: 3 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (108 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 3 of 5
Interactiveness: 1 of 5
Total: 3.2

Comment: The Doubleday Illustrated Children’s Bible looks a bit outdated with its drab illustrations. However, the translation is pretty good. It even includes a story of the Maccabean revolt from the Inter-Testamental period, which establishes the setting for the Jewish expectation of the Messiah in the New Testament.

children's illustrated bible

The Children’s Illustrated Bible
Edited by Selina Hastings and Illustrated by Eric Thomas
Dorling Kindersley, London, 2004 ($9.35)

Primary/Elementary; F1
Scriptural Fidelity: 3 of 5
Theology: 1 of 5
Comprehensiveness: 4 of 5 (138 stories)
Storytelling: 3 of 5
Illustration: 5 of 5
Interactiveness: 2 of 5
Total: 3.0

Comment: As the title suggests, The Children’s Illustrated Bible’s strength is illustrations. They are very detailed and realistic. There are even photographs and maps that provide further historical information. The stories and the accompanying notes, however, leave much to be desired. For example, it resorts to naturalistic explanations of clear miracles: “The Hebrew words originally translated as ‘Red Sea’ in fact mean ‘sea of reeds.’ It is possible that the Israelites crossed over a marshy swamp to the north of the Red Sea” (78). If this were true, the greater miracle would be God somehow drowning all those Egyptians in a mere “marshy swamp.” Here’s another example: “Some scholars think that the manna may have come from the hammada shrub, above, which grows in southern Sinai. When insects feed on its branches, it produces a sweet, white liquid. Today, Bedouin people use it as a sweetener” (80). Exodus 16:14 says that manna was a thin flake like frost that appeared on the ground. Even more problematic is its Bultmannesque demythologization: “The death of Jesus is important to Christians because they believe that, in dying, he was showing God’s love for all people. For this reason the cross became the main symbol of Christianity” (207). Yes, God loves us, but what about sin and justification? Here’s another example: “Christians believe, however, that death did not put an end to Jesus, but that his spirit lives on, especially through his followers” (207). Really, just his spirit lives on and not his body? The millions that worship Jesus do so only because he is “alive in their hearts?” As Apostle Paul taught, ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Featured
Dodson, Jonathan K. Gospel-Centered Discipleship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
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What is the difference between evangelism and discipleship? The common answer is that evangelism is converting non-Christians while discipleship is maturing those who are already Christians. However, Jonathan Dodson argues that this is an artificial division, since both evangelism and discipleship are about proclaiming the gospel–that Jesus lived a perfect life, died for our sins, then defeated death in His resurrection, so that we can be justified, sanctified, and glorified in Him. The gospel is not a once-in-a-lifetime vaccine, but our daily remedy for sin’s corrosive influence. As Dodson puts it, “persistent, unrepentant sin can disqualify us from the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 3:7-13). God does not accept us as we are. He accepts us as we are in Christ” (127). Therefore, Christians need to fight to believe the Gospel everyday. We need to abide in Christ. 

But is Dodson’s definition Biblical? What about the Great Commission? Isn’t “mak[ing] disciples of all nations” about “going and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [Jesus has] commanded [us]” (Mt. 28:18-20)? Where does he get the “gospel” from all this? Dodson notes that the Great Commission begins with Jesus’s statement that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and ends with his promise, “surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” Hence, the main point of the Great Commission is not “to go (in [our] effort), but that we are sent (under Jesus’s authority and in Jesus’s power)” (32). Therefore, Dodson continues, the Great Commission is a Gospel Commission to “make and mature disciples by going with the gospel, baptizing disciples into gospel community, and teaching the gospel” (35). In other words, a Christian disciple is someone who learns the gospel, relates in the gospel, and communicates the gospel (38).

After thus defining “discipleship” in Part I of his book, Dodson unpacks how the gospel transforms the motivation for, and the application of, discipleship in Part II and III, respectively. He makes the keen observation that the motivation for Christian discipleship generally falls under two categories: (1) religious performance (i.e. legalism) and (2) spiritual license (i.e. antinomianism). Those in the first camp can be inwardly-oriented toward spiritual performance (e.g. Bible reading, prayer, fasting, speaking in tongues, moral behavior), or outwardly-oriented toward missional performance (e.g. evangelism, community service, social justice) (70). In either case, they behave as if their religious performance determined God’s approval. However, human religious performance is inadequate and unreliable, and therefore this view leads to spiritual insecurity and instability. On the other hand, those who are motivated by spiritual license behave as if they are above rule-keeping, leading to moral degeneration and apathy.

Dodson contends that the proper motivation for discipleship is not religious performance or spiritual license, but the gospel. The gospel teaches us that we do not need to win God’s approval with our religious performance, because “the performance of Jesus in his perfect life, death, and resurrection” has already won God’s approval for us (71). The gospel also teaches us that we are not free to disobey because spiritual “license” is really spiritual bondage to sin. “The religious are bound to keeping rules, and the rebellious are bound to breaking rules. The gospel, however, tells us that we are bound, not to rules, but to Christ” (73). When we truly grasp the gospel, we develop a religious affection, a “gospel-centered delight in God [that] … compels us to follow Jesus, not because we have to, but because we get to” (cf. Jn. 14:15; Ps. 37:4; Deut. 28:47-48) (76).

Then, what does Dodson recommend for those who do not feel this religious affection? Should they resign themselves to disobedience since being motivated by religious performance is a bad thing? Dodson adds an important qualification when he says that “faith also includes trusting God when we don’t desire him” (80). When our hearts refuse to delight in God, we need to galvanize our hearts with God’s promises and warnings and obey anyway (Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5). The difference between this and religious performance is that when we repent, “We turn from our sinful behaviors and turn, not to good behaviors, but to Christ” (84). This sort of repentance leads us to treasure Christ rather than treasure our moral/spiritual triumphs. We obey even when we don’t feel like it, not for the sake of doing right, but for the sake of loving Christ.

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In the end, of course, no amount of human exertion can produce religious affection. As Dodson’s diagram above shows, the Holy Spirit is instrumental in this whole process. “The Spirit regenerates us so that our lifeless hearts can beat for God in lives of obedient worship and adoration of the Lord Jesus Christ” (90). For this reason, Dodson writes that we need to commune with the Holy Spirit by praying to Him and addressing Him throughout the day (98). This might seem unorthodox to some, but Dodson is not suggesting that praying to the Holy Spirit is more efficacious for Spirit-empowerment than praying to the Father or to the Son. Rather, he is saying that the practice of addressing the Holy Spirit helps us recognize the Holy Spirit as a Person and increase our awareness of His promptings in our lives. As Dodson wisely notes, “as Westerners we easily mistake the presence of the Spirit for our own conscience or ‘enlightened’ reason. When we make this mistake, we easily dismiss the promptings of the Spirit as mere rational options,” and “When we depersonalize the Spirit, it becomes much easier to disobey or deny the Lord. When we reduce the promptings of Spirit to options, we miss out on communion with God.” (100)

In addition to changing our motivation for discipleship, the gospel changes our application of discipleship. An example that Dodson provides is that of a Fight Club, which is the name for gospel-centered discipleship groups at Austin City Life Church where Dodson is the pastor. Fight clubs are made up of two to three Christians of the same gender that meet regularly to help one another fight sin and believe the gospel of grace (121). In these groups, they ask three questions, “What,” “When,” and “Why?” to expose and fight sin (122). I’ve been in many accountability groups that ask the first two questions in order to identify the sin and locate the lairs of temptation. However, I have seen very few small groups that ask the question “Why?” This last question is critical because “it gets to the motivation behind our sin; it addresses the heart. No one ever sins out of duty. We all sin because we want to, because our hearts long for something” (124). Some common deceptions include lust (i.e. “If you find sexual intimacy on the Internet, then you won’t be lonely or stressed”), vanity (i.e. “If you perform beautifully, then you have worth”), pride (i.e. “If you received more compliments, then you would be more confident”), and anger (i.e. “If you get angry, you can get your way”) (124). By comparing the promises of sin to the promises of the gospel, we can “[see] the futility of sin next to the beauty of Christ” (135). The gospel tells us that God will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6). The gospel tells us that our worth is inherent in the fact that we have been created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28) (55). The gospel tell us that God is sovereignly in control when we are not (Prov. 16:1-4). This emphasis on the gospel radically transforms our practice of discipleship. Instead of meting out graduated penalties or dispensing cheap grace and cheap peace for a troubled conscience, gospel discipleship forces us to examine our hearts and bolster our faith (66). As the (Reformed) Puritans understood so well, the failure to persevere in faith results in eternal damnation, not less sanctification, because, as John Piper writes in Future Grace, “the battle against sin is a battle against unbelief” (330-331).

Gospel-Centered Discipleship is not really a how-to book on discipleship like Mike Breen and Steve Cockram’s Building a Discipling Culture. Rather, it’s a theological exposition that undergirds the structure of discipleship with the gospel. Those familiar with Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections, Tim Keller’s teaching on gospel motivation, or John Piper’s writings on Christian hedonism will not find new insight in this book. However, everyone will find a compelling and practical application of the ageless gospel to the task of discipleship.

Buy Gospel-Centered Discipleship HERE.

When People Are Big and God Is Small


Welch, Edward T. When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1997.
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Edward Welch insists that fear of man is an insidious sin that every human being deals with one way or another. For an adult, it is called codependency, for an adolescent, peer pressure. It is a desire to be valued and wanted by others that manifests itself in low self-esteem, shame, feelings of rejection, jealousy, anger, and/or preoccupation with external appearance.

Welch writes that the fear of man keeps us “in bondage, controlled by others and feeling empty,” because we are “controlled by whoever or whatever [we] believe can give [us] what [we] think [we] need” (13). In When People Are Big and God Is Small, Welch exposes this sin from the recesses of our hearts and prescribes ways to counteract it.

In order to demonstrate that this seemingly innocuous need to be loved by others is indeed harmful, Welch offers a fascinating critique of our Post-Modern culture. Beginning with Freud and Maslow’s propagation of the idea of psychological need, there has been a gradual shift in our culture from the older moral concern with self-control and self-sacrifice to an emphasis on self-expression, self-realization, and self-fulfillment (86).

Underlying this shift is the faulty assumption that human beings are inherently moral and that their emotions (i.e. feelings), therefore, always express what is true and good (81-84). This assumption elevates psychological “needs”(i.e. love, significance, security, etc.) to the level of biological (i.e. food, water, clothes, shelter) and spiritual (i.e. redemption, sanctification, and glorification) needs (138).

Many Christians have uncritically accepted this understanding of the human being as psychologically needy, arguing that there is a “God-given need to be loved that is born into every human infant … that must be met from cradle to grave,” and that “if that primal need for love is not met,” we’ll “carry the scars for life” (88).

However, Welch contends that this psychological “need,” far from being divinely-ordained in creation, was a consequence of the Fall. It reflects an anthropocentric, rather than a theocentric, worldview. It is a “self-serving [need] … not meant to be satisfied, … [but] put to death” (162-163). In fact, this theory of psychological need is responsible for the unbridled self-ism and victim mentality of our therapeutic culture (89).

Welch observes that the idea of “psychological need” has found support in the common conception of a person as body, which has physical needs, soul, which has psychological needs, and spirit, which has spiritual needs. However, he insists that this tripartite view of personhood is inaccurate, because the Bible uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably (cf. Mt. 10:28 1 Cor. 7:34; Jas. 2:26). In cases where “soul” and “spirit” are separately mentioned (e.g. Heb. 4:12; 1 Thes. 5:23), the two words form a tandem describing one inner person (141-142).

If I may elaborate on Welch’s explanation, “soul and spirit” constitute a hendiadys, a rhetorical construct that expresses a single idea by two words connected with “and.” For example, when John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt. 3:11). He is not saying that we need to be baptized with both the Holy Spirit and fire, but rather conveying a single idea of the “fiery Holy Spirit.”

But don’t we have genuine, God-given need for other people? Didn’t God create mankind male and female because he deemed it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18)? Didn’t Jesus intend that the Church be an interdependent body of believers that needs its various parts to fulfill their various roles (1 Cor. 12)? Didn’t God command us to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35)?

Welch does not discount these realities, but he makes a teleological distinction between these genuine, spiritual needs and pseudo-psychological needs. Psychological needs are inherently self-serving, while spiritual needs are God-honoring. What we really need, writes Welch, is not to feel better about ourselves, but to repent from our ways and obey God. We are called to love others, “not because people have psychological deficits,” but “because God first loved us” (162-163).

Our problem, then, is that “we need [people] (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God)” (19), and Welch’s main thesis is that we need to “need other people less [and] love other people more” (183). This, of course, is not a natural human inclination, and for this reason we need the fear of God. If the fear of man is a centripetal orientation that uses people for one’s own needs, the fear of God is a centrifugal orientation that loves people for God’s glory. 

But wait, what about 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” That is true, but the fear that is cast out is the terror of God’s judgment. For Christians who have been forgiven of their sins, the fear of God is a reverent submission to God that leads to obedience. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). “The fear of the LORD leads to life” (Prov. 19:23). “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13; Dt. 1:17).

In other words, the fear of God involves seeing God as He really is–powerful, awesome, and holy–and humbly submitting to Him. The fear of man puts man under a microscope and makes small people appear big, while the fear of God sets a telescope on God and makes our big God appear as He really is.

Welch goes further than most Evangelicals by saying that the “fear of God” rather than the “love of God” is the cure for the “fear of man.” It is true that God loves us, but applying this truth as a psychological balm is little more than a baptized version of Melody Beattie’s prescription that to be Codependent No More one must love him or herself more (18). It spurns personal repentance and condones a self-centered worldview in which God exists merely to boost our self-esteem (18).

As Welch puts it, “To look to Christ to meet our perceived psychological needs is to Christianize our lusts. We are asking God to give us what we want, so we can feel better about ourselves, or so we can have more happiness, not holiness, in our lives” (150). The antidote for the fear of man is not to think more highly of ourselves, but to think more rightly, and therefore more highly, of God. Then, we will not think so much about what other people think of us and more about how we can love them.

Those who have weathered a hurricane are not concerned about the spring rain. Those who have “walked among the giant redwoods [are] never … overwhelmed by the size of a dogwood tree” (119). In the same way, those who have been in the presence of God fear no man:

“Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes before Him and consumes His foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim His righteousness, and all peoples see His glory” (Ps. 97:2-6).

Welch’s simple, yet profound, little book offers a welcome alternative to the plethora of self-help books that pander to our self-centered worldviews.

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Foolishness to the Greeks

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Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
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Much like Hellenistic civilization at the zenith of its influence, modern Western civilization is the most pervasive and persuasive contemporary culture in the world today. While there has been much discussion on “contextualization” in missiological writings, argues Lesslie Newbigin, the problems of contextualization in this predominate, Western culture has been largely ignored–mainly due to the fact that most of the missiological perspectives are themselves saturated with Western culture. To this situation, Newbigin, the Church of Scotland missionary who was one of the first bishops in the Church of South India, brings fresh cross-cultural lens through which he casts a vision of a genuine missionary encounter between the Gospel of Christ and modern Western culture.

Newbigin identifies the plausibility structure, or the worldview, within which modern Western culture operates as Enlightenment rationalism: “Reason, so understood, is sovereign in this enterprise. It cannot bow before any authority than what it calls the facts. No alleged divine revelation, no tradition however ancient, and no dogma however hallowed has the right to veto its exercise” (25). Rationalism, and its offspring scientific naturalism, separate the public world of facts and the private world of values, and effectively exclude the possibility of divine revelation in human history and thus eliminate teleology altogether.

The brilliance of Newbigin’s critique of modern Western culture lies in his ability to subvert its plausibility structure from within. He concedes that it is impossible to prove the claim of Jesus’ resurrection from the plausibility structure of modernity, but he submits that the plausibility structure of Christianity offers a wider rationality that has a greater capacity to endow the whole of human experience with meaning (63). Newbigin engages two arenas of modern Western culture, namely science and politics, with the Christian Gospel in view. First, Newbigin embarks on a fascinating foray into intellectual history to show that the achievements of modern Western culture are perfectly sensible in a plausibility structure informed by the Bible. He argues that the modern scientific enterprise developed in the West, rather than in other highly-sophisticated cultures of Ancient China, India, Egypt, or Greece, because Western culture was beholden to the biblical idea of a rational and contingent universe. “For to put it briefly, if the world is not rational, science is not possible; if the world is not contingent, science is not necessary” (71). If the world is irrational and inherently unpredictable, scientific observation is futile, but if, as in the Indian worldview, the world is a part of an immanent, absolute reality within which humans directly participate, empirical experiments are superfluous.

On the other hand, Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism offer no compelling outlook on human destiny and purpose. Reducing human life to a series of efficient, rather than final, causes leads to absurdity. For example, an exhaustive compositional analysis of a machine may adequately explain how it works, but unless one understands why the machine was created, the purpose of its design, the detailed analysis is wholly inadequate as an “explanation” of the machine. Similarly, examining all the physiological, psychological, and biographical traits of a person may lead to a vast knowledge about a person, but this “knowledge” can in no way approximate knowing a person relationally. This, contends Newbigin, is the break between natural theology and revealed theology. A purely rationalistic, and thus reductionist, view of the universe is ultimately unreasonable, and the testimony of the believing community that has encountered the living God constitutes the only viable alternative to this a-teleological, a-theistic worldview.

Likewise, Newbigin claims that prevailing political views fail to account for human teleology. Capitalism, founded on the freedom to pursue one’s desires, harbors gross inequalities, and socialism, founded on the principle of equality, sacrifices freedom and dignity, since the uniquely human need for love and respect rely on a differentiation of individual identities. The dated contrast between capitalism and socialism need not distract from this prescient volume. It remains true that other political varieties fall somewhere between the two paradigms and that they are all organized around the Enlightenment concept that human beings are autonomous individuals possessing equal rights to pursue their own happiness. The problem persists in that “happiness” cannot be properly defined without reference to a normative understanding of human purpose. Unlike the value-free science of economics, which has no answer to this conundrum, the Christian worldview suggests that this human purpose consists in partaking in the community of love and obedience inaugurated by the Triune, incarnate, God.

Newbigin’s proposal that the Church should apply the Gospel to every sphere of public life is ambitious. It calls for a nuanced eschatology that emphasizes the lasting, redeemable value of secular work, and a robust workplace theology that equips Christians to embody the Gospel in all of their waking hours. It calls for an intellectually rigorous apologetic that expounds the plausibility of the Biblical worldview, as well as an unapologetic witness to divine revelation through the vibrant life of the Church community. While it is not, nor does it pretend to be, a systematic interpretation of modern Western culture, Foolishness to the Greeks is an invaluable commentary on the dialectic between Christ and culture. Newbigin’s dual status as enlightened outsider and steeped insider to modern Western culture renders this volume much more insightful than other disquisitions on this subject.

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